|(Originally published 2022 | 10.13)
It’s been four months since a new wave of demonstrations broke out across Iran, and so far, the regime hasn’t been able to stop them. The unrest began after the country’s morality police arrested Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman—because her hijab didn’t fully cover her hair, as mandated by Iranian law—and ended up killing her in custody. Support for the demonstrations remains widespread in Iranian society: Workers in the oil sector briefly went on strike, with groups of lawyers and doctors reportedly joining the protests as well. As demonstrators continue to mobilize around the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom,” some are going so far as to call for the end of the Islamic Republic altogether.
Globally, Iran’s theocratic system has been an archrival to the United States, in the Middle East and beyond, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In the region, Israel has seen Tehran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, and the international deal to freeze the program remains highly contentious across the U.S., Israel, and Arab countries. Many of the seemingly intractable political problems in the Middle East, meanwhile, trace back to the hostility between the Islamic Republic and its Arab neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia. In this fraught context, how threatening are these protests to the regime in Tehran?
Vali Nasr is a professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, and the author of seven books on the Middle East and Islam. As Nasr sees it, the turmoil in Iran presents a major threat to the Iranian regime. The broad sympathy among the Iranian people for the demonstrators’ demands extends even among those who support the system. Though security forces have brutally repressed and killed some of the protesters, many of those in the street are teenagers, and the regime is reluctant to use overwhelming violence against them. And this uprising is different from previous unrest, Nasr says, because—by rejecting the hijab and the law requiring it—the protesters are challenging the cultural foundations of the Islamic Revolution itself. At the same time, the regime faces a new and daunting problem of trying to restore domestic stability while dealing with a perpetually sluggish economy and the ongoing regional and international instability that usually demands most of its attention. And abroad, the demonstrations are changing perceptions of Iran in the region—and so, changing the political dynamics of the Middle East.